Predictably queer

As with all other identity characteristics, how people understand and define their sexual orientation is not always simple. The dimensions that contribute to sexual orientation are multiple and, for many people, do not neatly align. They can change over time, differ according to context and intersect with other identity characteristics such as sex, gender and trans identity/history. Finding a census question that can capture this complexity was always going to be difficult.

Even against the backdrop of a global pandemic, preparations for Scotland’s 2021 census continue. On 21 March 2021, the Scottish government will ask everyone aged 16 and over, roughly 4.5 million people, to voluntarily disclose their sexual orientation. For the first time, Scotland’s census will present the opportunity for respondents to identify themselves as ‘Straight/Heterosexual’, ‘Gay or lesbian’, ‘Bisexual’ or ‘Other sexual orientation, please write in:…’ in a national data collection exercise. On the same day, censuses will also take place in Northern Ireland, England and Wales, asking respondents to disclose their sexual orientation.

Predictive lists in the census

One area of interest that has emerged in recent months concerns the use of predictive text for the ‘Other sexual orientation, please write in…’ response option.

To aid analysis of online census responses, National Records of Scotland (the government body responsible for the delivery of the census) proposed using a technology that would predict and auto-populate a response option for people who started typing a sexual orientation in the ‘Other’ write-in box. In a letter to the Scottish Parliament’s Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs Committee (designated as the lead committee scrutinising legislation related to the census), NRS explained how this approach would:

  • Improve the respondent experience (it would be easier to complete the census).
  • Improve data quality (auto-populated options would be matched to a coding list, which would reduce the risk of error from manually matching free-text options to a coding list).
  • Improve efficiencies in the coding of the data (more of this work could be automated).

Those completing this question would have the option of accepting the auto-populated response or writing-in something different. In the letter, NRS noted that ‘use of predictive text minimises errors such as spelling mistakes and abbreviations, which means clean codeable data is collected’. This meant that the provision of suggested options for respondents who start typing in the write-in box would help maximise the usability of data collected on ‘other’ sexual orientations.

The provision of an ‘Other’ option with a write-in box was welcomed by LGBTQ organisations in Scotland. Equality Network and LGBT Youth Scotland described its inclusion in the census as ‘vital’ and explained that, in their own equality monitoring, between 10% to 20% of the people they engage with identify as a sexual orientation other than lesbian, gay or bisexual.

Following the announcement of NRS’s proposal, media attention focused on the draft list of 21 sexual orientations that would auto-populate the write-in box for the sexual orientation question. The sexual orientations included on the list were drafted with input from LGBTQ organisations and included identities such as asexual, bicurious, pansexual and queer.

Organisations including the Christian Institute, the Catholic Church and LGB Alliance voiced their opposition to this proposal, with LGB Alliance writing to the Committee to note this proposal ‘would suggest that other sexual orientations exist beyond attraction to the opposite sex, same sex or both sexes’. Their opposition went further and urged the Committee not to include the term ‘other sexual orientation’ in the question at all.

The Scottish Parliament
The Scottish Parliament.

Earlier this month, NRS wrote to the Committee to announce that it had taken the decision to remove the predictive text functionality for the ‘Other’ category of the sexual orientation question. The letter also noted that this decision did not apply to other census questions on identity characteristics and that ‘All other Census questions where NRS had proposed to use this functionality will continue’. Correspondence between NRS and the Committee from December 2019 explained that predictive text functionality would be used for census questions on religion, national identity and ethnicity. Although the list of predictive options were still a work-in-progress, this included 116 religions, 274 national identities and 241 ethnic groups. Like the proposed list of sexual orientation options, these lists were based on previous censuses, other surveys, statistical desk based research and engagement with stakeholders.

What does this tell us?

Considering the complexity of religious, national and ethnic identities, what does this decision tell us about understandings of the sexual orientation question in Scotland’s 2021 census? The census can bring into being a population that ‘makes sense’ to the heteronormative majority, yet this risks ‘designing-out’ queer lives and experiences that fail to match these ideals.

Following the lines of scrutiny pursued (and not pursued) by the Committee indicates that members were more interested in a sexual orientation question that ‘made sense’ than the accuracy of data collected. The Committee’s disproportionate focus on questions related to sex and sexual orientation, particularly where they pertained to the lives and experiences of trans people, meant that there was limited discussion about the use of predictive text in questions on religion, nationality and ethnicity. This suggests that concerns expressed about the sexual orientation question were less to do with the census technology deployed and more to do with attitudes towards trans inclusion.

Published by Kevin Guyan

Dr Kevin Guyan is a researcher, writer and activist based in Edinburgh whose work explores the intersection of data and identity.

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